FIGHT FOR FOUR MARKS & MEDSTEAD
BACK GARDEN DEVELOPMENTS
17th July 2006 An update from Greg Clarke, MP for Tunbridge Wells
For those of you who have concerns regarding the development of gardens as brownfield sites, I just thought I'd update you on what happened in Parliament today in regard to my Protection of Private Gardens Bill. As on the 12 May, a Government whip objected to the further progress of the Bill and, as a result of constraints on Parliamentary time, it was not debated. However, the Bill will return to Parliament on the 20 October, a final opportunity for it to receive a 'Second Reading' and proceed to the next stage in the Parliamentary procedure.
Though frustrating, this process has helped to raise the profile of the issue and provided an opportunity for MPs of all Parties to express their support. I will continue to use the Bill to make the case for reform.
Thanks again for your continued interest and support.
A letter from Greg Clark, MP for Tunbridge Wells
When I became MP for Tunbridge Wells last year, one of the first constituency issues that came up was the amount of housing development taking place on garden land. I investigated a number of cases and a pattern began to emerge: A developer buys a house, demolishes it and uses the site - including the garden - to build several houses or even a block of flats. Then another house goes the same way and another after that, and very soon the whole street is changed out of all recognition.
When I first raised this issue in Parliament I was unprepared for the national response to what I had thought was a purely local concern. But very soon letters and emails were pouring in from all parts of the country. Whether from the suburban south or the urban north the story was the same - one of ordinary people powerless to stop the destruction of their neighbourhoods. Many correspondents spoke of the fear they felt as houses around them were pulled down and gardens concreted over. Growing media interest in the issue has also helped to raise its profile. In particular the Daily Telegraph gave the phenomenon a name which has stuck ever since: garden grabbing.
The consequences of garden grabbing for community cohesion and neighbourhood character are obvious, but there's an even bigger danger. Developments of this kind pose a real threat to the green space in our towns and cities. If you look on a large-scale map, you'll see that most of the green space in urban Britain is made up of privately owned gardens, rather than parks and other public amenities. Together they represent a vital environmental resource - contributing to drainage, air quality and biodiversity.
When I visited Garden Organic Yalding in Kent last month, I saw just how important organic gardening is for wildlife. Gardens across Britain provide a vast reserve of chemical-free land, whether or not the owners are consciously organic. The London Ecology Unit found that longer gardens are particularly valuable as these provide the biggest blocks of undisturbed habitat - especially when they're situated back-to-back. However, these are exactly the sort of sites that are being targeted by developers.
The truth about brownfield development
Of course, there's a great need for more affordable housing in many parts of Britain. At the same time, there's a real a need to protect Britain's countryside and prevent urban sprawl. That's why successive Governments have aimed to prioritise previously developed or brownfield sites. And who could object? Speaking in 2003, John Prescott put it this way:
"We're using old industrial assets - our canals, mills, factories, warehouses - once left to rot - now brought back to life. Providing new workspaces, new communities, and all on brownfield sites so that we've met our 60 per cent target for all new homes on brownfield land - eight years early."
However, the shocking truth is that the definition of brownfield land doesn't just cover disused factories and old gasworks, but homes and gardens too - no matter how green and beautiful they are.
In May the Government was forced to admit that fifteen per cent of all new dwellings are built on "previously residential land" i.e. demolished homes and gardens. The true picture could be even worse than that because a great deal of residential development takes place on land classified as "vacant", such as plots created when gardens are subdivided and sold off. In fact, when I looked at planning approvals in six different planning authorities from Bradford to Guildford, I found that garden grabbing accounted for up to seventy per cent of new development.
What can be done?
Defining gardens as brownfield land is absurd - but it has some very serious implications. Because the planning system prioritises brownfield development, local councils are powerless to stop garden grabbing. They can turn down planning applications, but in most cases they would only lose the case on appeal. That is why I've introduced a backbench bill to remove gardens from the brownfield definition. This wouldn't ban building on garden land, but it would return decision making power to local communities.
My Protection of Private Gardens Bill comes before the House of Commons on the 14 July. I'm glad to say it has all party support, but if the Government objects, it will be back to square one. I very much hope that everyone who cares about this issue will write to their MPs asking them to back the bill and also to sign a Parliamentary motion on the subject (Early Day Motion 2130).